Father Klaus Demmer was my moral theology professor at the Gregorian University in Rome. Diminutive, soft-spoken, and timid, he cut a small figure on the dais of the grand lecture hall. One day, just as the bell rang for class and students were getting settled, a classmate sitting next to me pointed to Father Demmer at the podium and said, “Watch his lips.” “What?” “No, really. Just watch his lips.” Sure enough, before he started his lecture, the professor uttered something, a couple of words, under his breath. On my own, I would never have noticed it: he obviously didn’t intend for anyone to hear or see it. What I came to learn was that this brilliant theologian began every one of his lectures with the words, “Cari amici”—“Dear friends.” That small, tender act revealed the regard and affection he had for his students. “Dear friends.” Just two words—and I’m still talking about it 37 years later.
II. In our communities, even in the Church, people can be dismissed and disregarded, put down and excluded, either blatantly or subtly, and come to believe themselves unworthy for this communion, “excommunicated,” outside the reach of love. Jesus, of course, wanted those who were nobodies in the eyes of the world to know that they were somebody, including those who, we hear today, “did not belong to the fold,” the stranger, the “excommunicated,” yet another indication of Jesus’ regard and affection and self-sacrificing concern for the foreigner, the wanderer, the immigrant. By laying down his life for us, Jesus demonstrates that we are God’s beloved and, at the same time, gives us a model for our advocacy for those on the margins. God’s love for us is not a feeling: it is our constant and unconditional state. There’s not a thing we can do to undo God’s love. We belong to the shepherd; we belong to God. Nothing and no one can snatch us from God’s hand.
III. If children and grown-ups are told that they are good, that they are enough, that they are worthy of God’s love and this communion, perhaps they’ll come to believe it. We come here to learn, and remind one another, that we belong to God. Here our identity as children of God — our primary and most fundamental identity — is formed, deepened, and nurtured. Here, and in every encounter, Jesus whispers affectionately, “Cari amici.” “See what love the Father has bestowed on us,” St. John says, “that we may be called the children of God. Yet so we are.”